By Russell Warfield
This is the latest in an occasional series of features where one of our writers reflects on their five favourite tracks by a particular artist. Here, Russell Warfield takes on Animal Collective, who release their ninth album Centipede Hz this week.
How do you provide a ‘snapshot’ of a band whose most famous attribute is of being perpetually in motion? Boasting a discography built on left turns and diagonal leaps with each and every release – putting out a semi-improvised, whispered acoustic album the moment they actually amass a full line up; releasing a wilfully oblique ‘visual album’ just months after their genuinely game changing, commercial crossover Merriweather Post Pavilion – any selection of five songs from their back catalogue is almost tantamount to picking five songs by five entirely different bands. This retrospective doesn’t attempt to be a best-of selection then, nor to provide an insight into any particular ‘aspect’ of Animal Collective, because their sound and identity is so unfixed as to sabotage any pointless attempt to try. Instead, I pick these songs in the spirit of Animal Collective’s approach to creation – with no prescriptive rules or set frameworks, and no particular rhyme or reason other than overflowing love for wide-eyed music played in earnest.
‘My Girls’ from Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2009
Hearing this for the first time was a revelation. I think I listened to it maybe twenty times in the first day it hit the web, and then blasted it in my car on repeat that evening. It’s a song which still gives me chills when I know I’m playing it to someone who’s hearing it for the first time, and drinking in their reaction when they hear the chorus. And then enjoying their even more impressive oh-my-god-that-was-the-bridge face when the actual chorus hits. Even three years after hearing if for the first time, that chorus still never fails to turn me on and lift me up in the most glorious, this-is-why-pop-music-exists way. As you get older, especially as a so-called music critic, a jaded listlessness diminishes the frequency of those truly life affirming moments when you just absolutely have to hear a song again, and again, and again, and again – but ‘My Girls’ is unequivocally, unquestionably and unambiguously one of those songs. This is a true time capsule song where Panda Bear just absolutely cracked it, and deserves to be a cultural artefact held up to future generations as an apology for how badly we fucked up: yeah, but come on, we did this.
Too much? Maybe. But ‘My Girls’ is a song of boundless and excessive exuberance, an outburst of vitality which invites excess (and italics) in any semi-articulated reaction to its joy; finding towering spiritualism in the most humble of life’s comforts and pleasures, wrapped up into the most pitch-perfect synthesis of blistering hooks and red-blooded low end which the band have ever produced. At that point in Animal Collective’s career, people always harped on about the band’s pop instincts despite their ultimately avant garde nature, not to mention the inability to get two sentences into anything written about them without meeting a Beach Boys reference, but ‘My Girls’ is their first bona fide example of just fucking going for the mainstream jugular with both hands and open eyes, and leaving every single contemporary for dead in fell swoop. And the fact that they managed to do that without giving a single inch of what made them the distinctive, adventurous, consistently surprising band that they are is close to being nothing short of a miracle. Or, to speak in the band’s own terms, nothing short of four walls and adobe slats.
‘Fireworks’ from Strawberry Jam, 2007
Back in 2007, the music world was going berserk for Panda Bear’s solo breakout Person Pitch, a record which introduced Lennox’s envelope pushing penchant for sampling and live loops which would become a backbone trademark of Animal Collective’s sound from their next record onwards. But in the same year was the highly lauded if perhaps slightly overshadowed Strawberry Jam – an LP which, perhaps coincidentally, often felt like an exercise in Avey Tare really flexing his song writing muscle to counterbalance his bandmate’s ground breaking experimentation.
And ‘Fireworks’ is the epitome of Tare’s towering abilities as a straight up songwriter, creating a career highlight from just four jangling chords, a rat-a-tat rhythm, and delivering an uncharacteristically direct (and sweepingly dynamic) vocal performance over the top of equally unusually thin textures. Animal Collective aren’t a band much complimented for their lyrics – often being incomprehensibly abstract in their early years, and then frequently embarrassingly literal later on – but ‘Fireworks’ is perhaps the only Animal Collective song which I can recite in full, such is its spellbinding way of painting a singular mood of cloying melancholy and aching nostalgia through fragmented and almost modernist lyricism. One of the things Animal Collective are to be most applauded for is their canny way of being simultaneously backward looking and forward thinking – and ‘Fireworks’ is one of the most gloriously affecting examples of that peculiar marriage of tone and sound.
‘For Reverend Green’ from Strawberry Jam, 2007
Talking about ‘Fireworks’ feels incomplete without giving due attention to its staggering predecessor ‘For Reverend Green’, here presented in reverse order, but on record existing as probably the strongest one-two punch in the entire Animal Collective discography. Again, a shining example of how entrancing Avey can be as a well chiselled, classical songwriter, ‘For Reverend Green’ is a five or six minute monolithic exploration of woozy, thick, viscous electronic textures prefiguring their later material, mixed with the organic instrumentation of their early, freak-out rock work. And, no list of five Animal Collective songs would be complete without including at least one example of Avey Tare really losing his shit on the microphone – moving through a middle-eight here beginning with under-the-breath muttering, building up into an absolute frenzy of larynx tearing howling of the song’s title, before whomping back into that pulsating potion, and one of Strawberry Jam‘s highly intoxicating, wordless, falsetto licks. Mature and muscular but with a steely internal framework, ‘For Reverend Green’ stands out as an apex straddling some of the ground the band had already conquered at that point in their trajectory, and offering some indications as to what bold new territories they would be exploring next.
‘Loch Raven’ from Feels, 2005
Animal Collective have rightly earned themselves a reputation for being pioneers of labyrinthine and overflowing textures, especially so since the hedonistic, pulsating electronic arrangements of Merriweather Post Pavilion. But listening to a track like the arrestingly gorgeous ‘Loch Raven’ reminds us that Animal Collective can achieve similarly high-impact results when employing restraint alongside a less-is-more approach. Appearing towards the end of an album which the band referred to their love record, ‘Loch Raven’ absolutely throbs with tender feeling, all the while built around little more than a chiming piano chord progression, borderline incomprehensible whispering from Avey Tare, and a shimmer of harmonic vocal texture from Panda Bear. As the repetitions stack up and the tension increases in steady parallel with its yearning emotion, the pay-off comes in the shape (and size) of a subtle falsetto hook of a humble ‘ooh-ooh-ooh’; barely voiced, but stunningly euphoric. You think of big moments in the Animal Collective discography, and you think of moments like the sucker-punch money-shot of ‘In The Flowers’, or the psychedelic whirlwind of ‘Brother Sport’s midsection, but ‘Loch Raven’ proves that there’s plenty of devastating climaxes in the nooks and crannies of their less showy material as well, ready to ravish with equal intensity.
‘Leaf House’ from Sung Tongs, 2003
Put a gun to my head and I might babble that ‘Leaf House’ is Animal Collective’s best song. At the very least, it’s perhaps the best encapsulation of everything which the band excels at: transcendental spiritualism mixed with grounded worldliness, fiercely captivating vocal interplay, a transparent devotion to the playground of sound and the possibilities of multi-track recording, and – of course – a dazzling ear for melody and pop sensibility. As a statement of intent to open their brilliant, acoustic-centric Sung Tongs record, it’s second to none and impossible to conceive of improving upon – being as it is a near flawless recording of a gorgeously refined aural experiment. As Avey and Panda’s voices dance around each other, descending from words into child-like noise and primal throat-testing within the space of single lines, the hypnotic guitar lines and subtle rhythms all congeal into one of the first shining examples of Animal Collective’s arrangements becoming an otherworldly and seamless soundscape far greater than the sum of their parts.
Just listen to that coda. As the chord progression kicks into an uplifting ascension, Avey and Panda bring their voices together into sharp unison to deliver one of the bands most addictive and affirming hooks with much deserved focus, but not without piling up new layers of vocal harmony in the process. Funnily enough, with the sense of empowerment offered by this section, I always used to hear the closing, repeated lyric as a simple invitation: “go on”. And the fact that ‘Leaf House’ lost not one iota of impact once I discovered that the lyric was actually the rather more downbeat “there’s no-one” is to the ultimate testament of Animal Collective’s ability to convey competing sentiments within the one and the same package. It’s fearless, sublime, and completely indicative of their body of work at large, without sounding anything like anything else they ever recorded. Such is Animal Collective.